Robert Jenrick – 2022 Speech on Visas for International Doctors

The speech made by Robert Jenrick, the Minister for Immigration, in Westminster Hall on 2 November 2022.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman) for securing this important debate, and all Members who have contributed. The Government recognise the vital contribution that doctors and other health and care professionals make to the United Kingdom and our NHS. Of course, Dr Rachel Warman is my favourite doctor, and she has no doubt helped to inform the quality of my hon. Friend’s remarks.

By happy coincidence, I am both the Minister for Immigration and formerly the Minister responsible for the NHS and the recruitment of doctors domestically and internationally, so I understand and appreciate the importance of the issues raised. This is clearly a timely debate, because the NHS faces a significant workforce challenge. About 10% of the roles in the NHS are vacant, and a larger number are vacant in social care. We all need to be focused on creative ways to resolve the challenge, including, as has been said, on retaining more of our existing GPs and other health and social care professionals.

Last month, the former Health Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), and I announced changes to the pension provision for doctors to encourage more of them to stay in the NHS for longer, to work longer hours and not to resort to private practice as quickly as some are doing. Those changes will make a difference, although I appreciate that the BMA and a number of organisations wish the Government to go further.

We are keen to recruit and train more GPs and doctors in the UK. Persuasive arguments have been made for raising the cap on medical school places, including by the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock). That is an important debate to have, and one that I am sure will find favour with the new Chancellor, who has raised the matter many times in the past. In the interim, it is clear that we will need to rely on more international recruitment of doctors and nurses. That is exactly what the NHS is doing at the moment. For example, as a result of significant retention issues the Government are succeeding in recruiting a large number of nurses internationally. We need to make that process as simple and efficient as possible for the benefit of the NHS and trusts that are undertaking that recruitment exercise, but also for patients.

Hon. Members will be aware that in 2020 the Government delivered and built on the commitment in our manifesto to introduce a route that made it quicker, easier and cheaper for qualified medical professionals to come and work in the UK. That was the health and care visa, which provides a significantly reduced visa fee and a dedicated Home Office team to process the applications. A number of Members understandably referred to Home Office backlogs, which do exist in some areas; most vividly, in the last week, we have had a national conversation about the backlog of asylum cases.

Applicants for the health and care visa get a gold-plated service. Health and care visas provide cheaper fees and quicker processing, and the aim is to process applications within three weeks. Understandably, there has been an impact on processing times this year, primarily because the Department chose to redeploy so many of its professionals to work on the Homes for Ukraine scheme and other refugee and resettlement schemes, but it is our intention to get back as swiftly as possible to the service standard. In fact, we have set a target of reaching that by the end of the year and continuing to meet it into next year while continuing to manage the very large number of individuals coming from Afghanistan, Ukraine and other parts of the world that are in distress.

Jim Shannon

I recently chaired an event in Portcullis House on a completely different matter. When I came out, the people taking over the room were getting ready to give a presentation about how Ukrainians with medical skills could help the UK. I am not sure who the sponsor was, but I will try to find out, and the Minister’s staff might do the same. It took place at 2 pm in room Q in PCH. I had to go to another event, so I could not stay, but it seems that there are a number of Ukrainians here who have medical skills that could be used in the NHS. That is just a thought.

Robert Jenrick

Of course, adults who come to the UK on the Homes for Ukraine scheme have the right to work, and we actively encourage them to do so while they are here. There has also been an exercise across Government, which I have not been personally involved in, to help them to find equivalent professional qualifications while they are here, and to break down any barriers. I would be happy to look into whether there are remaining issues for doctors and nurses from Ukraine while they live here on the three-year visas that we are granting.

Some 30,700 nurses and 14,900 doctors obtained a health and care visa up to the end of August this year. In total, including care workers and other professionals, 96,000 such visas have been issued—a very significant number, which accounts for 52% of all skilled worker visas that have been issued to people taking up work in the health sector. I would like to think that that innovation has been a success, but we take seriously the legitimate concerns that have been raised in the debate and that we have heard from royal colleges and others. Let me now turn to some of those concerns and what we might be able to do to assist.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness said, the Royal College of General Practitioners has made a number of suggestions. We believe that the best way to increase the number of international GPs taking up places in the UK is for GP practices to register as Home Office-approved sponsors. The Government have run a number of engagement events that aim to explain the sponsorship process. Sponsorship is not supposed to be onerous, and the Home Office believes that it is not as onerous as some people clearly perceive it to be. Over 48,000 organisations are licensed sponsors of skilled workers, and many are high-pressure, small organisations, such as GP practices. However, there is clearly an issue—whether in reality or in perception—so I have two proposals to answer the concerns raised by my hon. Friend.

First, I am prepared to consider other sponsorship arrangements suggested by the sector, provided that they are consistent with the sponsorship system and that the sponsor can continue to discharge the important duties of a sponsor, which enables us to ensure that the overall system is robust and defensible. In principle, the sponsor could be an appropriate national body, such as Health Education England. It has not approached us to ask to be such a body, but I would be open to considering that. As my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) suggested, the sponsor could be an integrated care board in England or an appropriate body in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, or it could be a royal college. I will therefore ask my officials to work with the sector to see whether there is a way forward to create umbrella bodies, if there is mutual support on both sides, with the caveat that any umbrella body would need to discharge the required duties in law to ensure the robustness of the system.

Secondly, in the interim my officials would be happy to run further engagement events with the sector to talk them through how straightforward they believe it is to be a sponsor. I encourage anyone listening to the debate to get in touch with the Home Office if they would like us to host an event in their area or with their part of the health sector. I have asked my officials to organise at least one such event in the weeks ahead. We will take account of any feedback that we receive at these events, and if it is true that the system is simply too complex and burdensome, I have asked them to report back to me with that feedback and we will take it into consideration.

The shadow Minister—the hon. Member for Aberavon —and others, including my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness, raised the fundamental question of whether five years is the right length of time to demonstrate an individual’s commitment to the UK. That is a profound question, and it is important that we approach it fairly, rather than hiving out individual sectors, however important they might be for our economy or our public services. Although I am sympathetic to the arguments around granting GPs settlement on completion of their training, my view today is that it is better to stick to five years because that has been, by the long-standing convention of this Government and their predecessors, considered the right length of time for an individual to demonstrate sufficient commitment to the United Kingdom to obtain indefinite leave to remain. We should value indefinite leave to remain, because it is an important and significant moment for anyone committing to life in our country.

Stephen Kinnock

I thank the Minister for setting out that clear position, but does he agree that the nature of that kind of commitment—the three years, and the type of work that somebody studying to be a general practitioner is looking into and wants to do—is in itself a demonstration of something extra in terms of commitment to the United Kingdom? It is not as if they are coming here to work for a foreign company. Should such people not be given some kind of exceptional treatment because of the nature of the work? That is an open question.

Robert Jenrick

The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. Of course, one could apply that to a number of other regulated professions, whether that be lawyers, nurses or others making significant contributions to the United Kingdom. It is an important step to obtain indefinite leave to remain, and not one that we should give away lightly. Asking an individual to spend five years here in order to demonstrate that level of commitment to the UK feels to me about the right length of time, but I am open and interested to hear other contributions on that point. At the moment we do not have plans to reduce the length of time that skilled workers would need to complete in the UK in order to apply for settlement.

The SNP spokesperson, the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald), raised a number of cases that I am aware of from my former role at the Department of Health and Social Care about allegations of the mistreatment of foreign workers—including doctors and nurses—coming to the UK. That is something we take seriously, and the Department of Health and Social Care and NHS England are investigating. If I receive further information from the Ministers in the Department of Health and Social Care, I will be happy to write to the hon. Gentleman.

On the broader question of the ethics of recruiting healthcare professionals internationally, the NHS takes that responsibility seriously. We have ethical guidelines nationally that are set by NHS England and individual trusts in England—that may well be the case in Scotland as well—and of course we take heed of the red lists, which give a strong indication of countries from which we should not be recruiting healthcare professionals because they clearly need them to satisfy their own healthcare requirements. The NHS proactively works with countries that have an excess of doctors and nurses, or that train individuals specifically for export. In fact, one of the last meetings I had as Health Minister was with the Chief Minister of the state of Kerala, which specifically trains nurses to be exported to other countries around the world.

That sort of arrangement is sensible and defensible by the UK, although it is not a sustainable answer in the very long term because we live in a globally ageing society; there will be competition from other states to recruit professionals. That is one of the many reasons we should be training more doctors and nurses in the UK and considering measures such as raising the cap on medical school places, if we are able to do so. That, of course, is a matter for the Treasury and the Department of Health and Social Care, not my Department. It is worth saying that it is an extremely expensive measure over time, and that the Opposition’s proposal would cost several billion pounds to deliver. That is not to say that it is not an important step, but it is worth bearing in mind the significant outlay.

Steve Brine

The Minister is responding very clearly to the points raised. What we really need is an independent health workforce assessment, supported by the Treasury. He will be aware that that was called for by some Members who are no longer on the Back Benches. Dare I say that he could encourage that through his good offices, because only once we have the answer will we get to a better place. If we ask the NHS what we need it will answer with what we can afford. Those are not the same questions.

Robert Jenrick

For a long time I have believed that one of the virtues of a national health service is that it should be able to plan for its workforce needs long into the future. My hon. Friend raises the specific campaign of our right hon. Friend the Member for South West Surrey (Jeremy Hunt), when he was Chair of the Health and Social Care Committee. I am sure that he will consider that carefully now that he has his hands on the controls as Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Stephen Kinnock

The Minister rightly mentions value for money. The British taxpayer pays for the training of international medical graduates in this country. Will the Government consider doing a value-for-money assessment of what the British taxpayer pays for people who train to be GPs but end up leaving our system all together because of all the visa issues? Is that not a waste of taxpayers’ money?

Robert Jenrick

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. It really is a matter for the Department of Health and Social Care. I do not want to stray too far into policy questions that are rightly its domain, but clearly the UK benefits from retaining as many doctors who train here as possible. Staying will not always be the intention of those coming to the UK—many clearly want to make use of our world-class medical education and then return to their country of origin, or other countries that, for lifestyle reasons, they want to live in—but we benefit from encouraging more to stay.

Stuart C. McDonald

I have one final thought. I appreciate that the Minister will go away and task officials with looking at a possible umbrella sponsor—that is very positive news. The other issue is the length of visa for IMGs. From the Health and Social Care Committee inquiry, it appeared that there is a severe pressure between finishing up and being able to find a job. Extending the grace period a little might allow more people to stay.

Robert Jenrick

I will happily add that to the list of homework for my officials after the debate.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness for securing this important debate, and the many colleagues on both sides of the House who have attended to register their interest in the topic. I assure them all that we will reflect carefully on the points raised, and in particular that I will task my Home Office officials to work with stakeholders in the sector to give greater consideration to the central question of whether there is a simpler way in which GP practices can apply for relevant visas. If that can be delivered by appropriate umbrella bodies, we would be pleased to see whether it can be taken forward.

Matt Warman

We are all hugely grateful for the fantastic work that doctors do for us all, as the Minister alluded to. I do not just say that because I am married to one, although it brings it home—literally. In the course of the debate, the Home Office has been accused of intransigence. Within days of his arrival, the Minister has demonstrated more progress on this important issue in the commitment that he has made to us today than we have seen in some years. He is the human embodiment of cross-Government working in the sense that he brings together the Department of Health and the Home Office remits. We could all learn from the value of cross-Government working. I am immensely grateful to all Members who have brought the issue to life, and I look forward to continuing to work with the Minister on the outcome of the review, which will make a real difference to our constituents, and to doctors up and down the country.